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CSUF Scientist Helps Discover 'Whale Graveyard' in Chile

Research Published in London's Royal Society Scientific Journal

Feb. 26, 2014

Cal State Fullerton scientist James Parham and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, Universidad de Chile and other institutions have discovered complete skeletons of 6-9 million-year-old whales and other marine animals in Chile.

The team's collaborative research in what Parham described as a "spectacular whale graveyard," located in the Atacama region of Chile, was published Tuesday, Feb. 25, in the London-based scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study, led by Smithsonian scientist Nicholas D. Pyenson, was funded by National Geographic grants to Pyenson; Parham, assistant professor of geological sciences; and their collaborators at Universidad de Chile and the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Chile.

The fossil-rich site is named "Cerro Ballena," meaning "Whale Hill" because of the nearly complete skeletons of dozens of whales and other marine animals. Cerro Ballena is the densest site in the world for individual fossil whales and other extinct marine mammals. It is similar to the extensive collection of fossils found at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado and Utah border, explained Parham.

The team's involvement in the site happened by chance. In 2011, Parham and a team of paleontologists were in Chile to study a nearby bone layer full of fossils. During that visit, Cerro Ballena was uncovered as a result of construction work to build a major road.

"We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time," said Parham. "This site is an amazing window into ancient marine ecosystems along South America's coast."

In their study, the researchers argue that the accumulation of the whale skeletons is attributed to harmful algal blooms that poisoned and killed the whales and other ocean vertebrates at sea, said Parham. The carcasses washed ashore and were buried by sand. Researchers documented 10 different kinds of marine vertebrates, such as seals, billfishes and several species of whales, including 40 individual large baleen whales.

Two of the study's authors will be working in Parham's lab beginning in April to study Orange County fossils, said Parham, also faculty curator of paleontology at the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center. The Cooper Center is a partnership between CSUF and Orange County Parks and focuses on protecting and researching the fossil resources of the region, especially those that like Cerro Ballena, were uncovered during construction for roads and development.

The visiting researchers are Ana Valenzuela-Toro, a graduate student at Universidad de Chile who conducted research at the Cooper Center last November; and Jorge Velez-Juarbe of Puerto Rico, who earned his doctorate from Howard University. Velez-Juarbe is a postdoctoral scholar who received National Science Foundation funding to work in Parham's lab for up to two years.

"Our collaborative work on Cerro Ballena set the foundation for collaborations that are now moving up the coast to Cal State Fullerton. Here in Orange County, we have sites of the same age, including some of the same kinds of animals as Cerro Ballena," said Parham, who is studying these fossils in collaboration with outside researchers and CSUF students.

"In fact, we have also found aggregations of whale fossils and well-preserved whale skeletons in Orange County that were discovered and preserved during construction activities."

As for further research at Cerro Ballena, Parham added, "There is much more work to be done. We estimate that there are hundreds of more skeletons waiting to be discovered there."

For more photos, visit online.

Media Contacts:

James Parham, Geological Sciences, 657-278-2043

Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

Tags:  Academics & Research